The organic industry is one of the fastest growing agricultural segments in the United States today. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported that organic sales reached nearly $35 billion in 2012. About 25,000 farms and businesses in every U.S. region and over 100 countries around the world are certified to USDA organic regulations. The last three federal Farm Acts, including the 2014 Farm Act, have included increases in federal support for organic production systems.
The USDA website defines certified organic agriculture producers as enterprises that “produce products using methods that preserve the environment and avoid most synthetic materials, such as pesticides and antibiotics. USDA organic standards describe how farmers grow crops and raise livestock and which materials they may use.”
Organic growers are required to follow a defined set of standards to produce organic food. Congress described general organic principles in the Organic Foods Production Act, and the USDA defines specific organic standards. These standards cover the product from farm to table, including soil and water quality, pest control, livestock practices, and rules for food additives.
Organic farms and processors:
- Preserve natural resources and biodiversity.
- Support animal health and welfare.
- Provide access to the outdoors so that animals can exercise their natural behaviors.
- Only use approved materials.
- Do not use genetically modified ingredients.
- Receive annual onsite inspections.
- Separate organic food from non-organic food.*
Planning for and growing certified organic crops requires diligence at every point in the process from planting to growing, harvesting, storage and transportation. With the increased use of GMO seeds and the recent deregulation of GMO Alfalfa, it is increasingly difficult for an organic farm to control the chances of GMO contamination of his/her crop. During a webinar hosted by eOrganic, Jim Riddle of the University of Minnesota offered strategies for organic farms to minimize genetic trespass.
The first step for an organic farm is purchasing organic seeds. “Some crops are not available in organic seeds,” Riddle said, “In situations where organic seeds are not available, untreated seeds can be used, but documentation must be on file that organic seeds were sourced and unavailable.” When purchasing organic seeds, request a statement from the supplier that verifies the organic and non-GMO status of the seeds purchased. “Ask for test results or receipts to verify that the seeds have been tested,” Riddle suggested. “It is important that they are tested for each trait because one test does not cover all traits.
Once organic seeds have been planted, the next step is determining which field to plant in. Ideally, organic crops would be planted on land where no GMO seeds are present. “Select isolated fields for planting organic crops,” Riddle suggested. “Know the prevailing winds,” Riddle added. Wind drift and insect pollination can carry GMO seeds from the fields they are planted in to neighboring farmland. Hedge rows can serve as buffer zones or wind breaks to minimize GMO pollen drift. They can also prevent soil erosion and provide wildlife a habitat to live in.
Even though a farm may be certified organic and the farm owners are committed to organic farming practices, it’s difficult to be 100 percent pesticide and GMO free. Rainwater from a neighboring farm brings chemicals from that farm onto the property of an organic farm. Nature has its own ways of cross pollinating and spreading seeds so we can’t control everything.
Talk to neighboring farms
Establish a good line of communication with the farms that border your land. Not only is it important to notify them that you are growing organic crops, but it is also important to know if they are growing a GMO crop. “If a farm grows Bt corn, they are required to plant a refuge along the border for European borer and other insects to avoid resistance,” Riddle explained. “If this is the crop they are growing, ask them to plant the refuge along the border of your field to serve as a buffer.” Posting “organic farm” signs along your farm’s boundaries can serve as a good reminder to your neighbors, but should not be the only means of communicating with other nearby farms.
Depending upon the crops grown on your farm and those grown on the farm next door, staggered planting dates can be one way to reduce the chances of GMO contamination. “A traditional farm is working the land when it is colder and organic farms wait for warmer weather,” Riddle noted. “Delay your planting if it makes sense to avoid contamination through pollination.”
Raising organic crops requires diligence. For more information on growing organic crops visit the listed websites below.
* USDA Organic Agriculture
* The Organic Center
https://www.organic-center.org/ (nonprofit organization that funds research on organic methods)
* National Organic Coalition
http://eorganic.info/, an organic agriculture community of practice with eXtension*
COVER PHOTO COURTESY JAMESMCQ24/ISTOCK